Slow Estonians, fat Americans, greedy Jews, conservative Englishmen, and pragmatic Germans. These descriptions sound rather familiar, don’t they? There are plenty of other stereotypes for everything from age, sex, nationality, to social status, and Ukrainians are no exception.
Most readers are aware of the events of 2013 and 2014 in my motherland, Ukraine, and what’s happening now. Due to the Maidan and Donbas conflict, Ukrainians acquired, in the eyes of the Western world, new characteristics, and therefore, new stereotypes emerged.
So, what do people from Central and Western Europe think of Ukraine and its citizens?
War, war, and more war in a poverty-stricken vestige of the former Soviet Union.
Ukrainians are hung with labels and shrouded with negative associations. For example, when I was in Vilnius in Lithuania two months ago, I came across upon an interesting unusual picture exhibition - two pictures in particular caught my eye:
What conclusion arises? Not a pleasant one. Nowadays, few people outside Ukraine remember the renowned Cossacks such as Bohdan Khmelnytsky or Ivan Mazepa, the great son of Ukraine Taras Shevchenko, or scientists Ivan Puliuy and Volodymyr Vernadsky. Instead, an average European might see the war with Russia, Vladamir Putin, Crimean annexation, thieving governments, and dreadful road quality. If the current situation didn’t happen, some people couldn’t even find Ukraine on a map. And that hurts!
We, the Ukranians, are at fault for the current opinions. We are the ones that allowed people to think about us like that, that allowed the mass media to present this image to the world, and sometimes even allowed ourselves to encourage these stereotypes. That’s why it’s high time to break all the stereotypes and to prove our strength, and create new image of Ukrainians as a strong, intelligent, and talented nation. According to the American writer Nancy Kress: “even positive stereotypes present two problems: They are clichés, and they present a human being as far more simple and uniform than any human being actually is”.
In June, I participated in the youth exchange “Youth for Peace” that for 14 days gathered 43 young people from Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Russian Federation, Turkey, United Kingdom, and Ukraine. People came abroad to Ukraine, and this opportunity changed their mind on the situation completely. Here are some feedback about Ukraine from the youth exchange participants:
“The people of Ukraine were incredibly warm and welcoming, and (importantly for someone like me who speaks neither Ukrainian nor Russian) patient. In a country readily characterized in the distant (British) media I consume as fiercely nationalistic and torn apart by civil war I instead found a people who were far more concerned with their day to day lives; their families, businesses, hobbies, etc. Although I was far from the conflict zone of the South-East the Ukrainians I spoke to recognized that they and their lives were not so different from those on the other side and, broadly speaking, laid the blame for the conflict and the country's struggles firmly at the feet of the powerful. Indeed, the only way in which Ukraine felt particularly different to “Europe” was simply that she was obviously lacking the investment and infrastructure to allow her people to meet their potential. However, in spite of this, the people of Sumy (where I visited) still had a thriving cultural scene that would put many equivalent cities in the rest of the EU to shame – a testament not only to the people of Ukraine, but also to the country's inspiring beauty.” - Allan Campbell, Scotland
“According to my experiences and while I was in Ukraine, Ukrainian people whom I have ever met or talked, were kind and had hospitality to foreigners. So I didn’t feel stranger with those people. I thought that they are cold and unfriendly like Russians before i visited Ukraine, but I surprised when I saw kind and friendly behavior.” -Anıl Hayat, Turkey
“I was sleeping in the plane when I woke up and looked at the window. A new country, new culture and new people were waiting for me.
Sumy was the best place to walk and to enjoy beautiful fountains and roses that were everywhere. I still cannot forget the bicycle which was the symbol of protest. Blue eyes, the sweetest smiles and the kindest hearts. It’s about my new friends from Ukraine. Hugging each other was our favourite activity. I want to share a memory about the shop assistant whom we met in the chocolate store. He did not know Russian and English, he knew only Ukrainian and we tried and tried to communicate. The boy was smiling and speaking in Ukrainian. Yeah, Ukrainians are the kindest. The same was about our barman. I will never forget that hospitality.
I cannot forget the day of international dances. I saw Ukrainians in beautiful Ukrainian costumes and I was surprised how they prepared for dances. Girls were wearing beautiful flowers on their heads; they were like roses which I had seen in Sumy. Yeah those beautiful roses became my best friends. We shared cultures, we shared smiles and even tears. We could understand each other without words by just hugging each other and sharing positive energy.
Ukraine and Ukrainians will always stay in my heart. I do like them from the first embrace to the last goodbye.” - Mary Adamyan, Armenia
About Ukraine I can’t say much, but it’s beautiful as Ukrainians. The ones that I met are very polite, gentle and kind. Middle aged men can be rude sometimes when they are drunk but that’s not a problem. Overall I fell in love with Ukraine and Ukrainians and plan to visit it as often as I can. - Luka Jalalishvili, Georgia
In this article I begin breaking stereotypes about Ukrainians and returning a positive image to ourselves. If not me, then who? If not now, when?